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Leading Under The Influence

By Glenn Kaufman on Feb. 6, 2012 in Leadership Bites


We should license leaders.  Think about it.  Doctors, lawyers, dentists, psychologists, accountants and host of other professionals all had to pass some kind of test to certify that they knew their fields before they were allowed to practice.  Yes, there are malpractice suits and some of them go astray, but we at least know that they absorbed a body of knowledge that is essential to their field before they could hang out a shingle.  Not so for leaders.

No other professional group impacts as many lives on a daily basis as those who call themselves leaders.  They impact the lives of employees, clients, customers, constituents, and the average consumer—and consequently, their ability to do harm is immeasurable.

Do we have such low expectations for our leaders that we are comfortable letting anybody do it?  Is it true that the cream rises and that unfit leaders are somehow winnowed out of larger jobs on the way up, and that we will be spared the agony of their “malpractice”?  I can’t imagine anyone who has ever worked in an organization believes that competence is commensurate with level and role.  I for one have had the misfortune of working for several leaders in my career that should never have been allowed to have a direct report.

As far as I remember, GRE’s, LSAT’s, MCAT’s, and GMAT’s do not test for leadership aptitude, nor do any other assessments on the path to getting degrees in the fields where many of these profession school graduates will ultimately go on into leadership roles.  Shouldn’t we have a process to grant us a modicum of confidence that they will practice good leadership when they arrive?

Imagine if becoming a leader required a process similar to acquiring a driver’s license.  First, the written test to determine if we have mastered the body of knowledge necessary to operate a motor vehicle.  Then, the road test: can we actually show some examiner that we can get from point A to point B, and maneuver the vehicle safely along the way?

What’s even more important is the “point” system for dealing with recalcitrant behavior of those in possession of a license!  Blow the stop sign and get caught, bingo.  Speed your way up the freeway, more points added to the license.  And of course, drive while impaired and risk losing the privilege altogether.

I am not in favor of adding any more bureaucracy to our already regimented lives.  But think of how much different our organizational lives would be if every potential leader knew that we would not let them lead another human being unless they had some minimal proof that they understood the enormous responsibility that this entailed.  Imagine if we tested people’s aptitude for empathy, and understanding of how they impact others BEFORE we let them into roles where they have to do so on an hourly basis?

While a leadership ‘road test’ certainly defies practicality, one solution would be for us to begin treating leadership as a profession, not a job. Anything to diminish or eradicate the waste, grief, lawsuits, productivity drains, and many other side effects of modern organization behavior. Isn’t that a fine idea?


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